Head of School Blog: On Humility

Matt Green
By now, I hope it is painfully clear to you that I am proud of our school and our students.  I’ve sung their praises and shared their accomplishments in social media posts, in conversations around town (usually clad in Mariner-branded blue gear), in countless speeches at countless events, and of course, on a weekly basis in the blog you are reading at this very moment.  While to some degree, boasting is just a part of my job description, it is not a practice that comes particularly naturally to me. (Luckily, my faculty and students provide me with plenty of material!)

Last Saturday, we hosted somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 families for our annual Fall Information session.  I opened by stating, “First, let me make one thing clear.  Though by any number of measures, Falmouth Academy is thriving, at events like this one, when presenting our school proudly and highlighting what we think makes it great, we run the risk of appearing boastful, that you are lucky to be here.  The truth is quite the opposite: we are humbled by your presence and we are thrilled you want to learn more about us.”

I share this because I think one of the strengths of this quietly confident school has always been a certain modesty that permeates all that we do.  You can see it in the rustic simplicity of our buildings and grounds or in the reluctance of our faculty to take credit or receive praise. But it is most apparent in our daily meeting, where students sit in-the-round and many of their faculty, including their Head of School, choose to sit among them.  Our school, I have come to learn, is bigger than any one person, and the center of attention is territory that just isn’t to be fought over. Indeed, at most all-school meetings, that center space is literally empty!

We may have been aware, intuitively, of the growing body of research that suggests humility is a personality trait that correlates with so many other positive traits, including—perhaps counterintuitively—leadership.   

In a New York Times article titled, “Be Humble, and Proudly, Psychologists Say,” Benedict Carol writes, “A humble disposition can be critical to sustaining a committed relationship. It may also nourish mental health more broadly, providing a psychological resource to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently, and forgive oneself.”  He goes on to argue that humble people are less judgmental and more tolerant in encountering new or unfamiliar people and less rigid and more agile when it comes to engaging in intellectual debate of complex issues.

Psychologist Michael Austin echoes Carol, contending that “Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership. Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative.”

I suppose I find myself most surprised by his contention that humility is so often found in effective leaders.  Growing up, I had always assumed that to the loudest and most assertive voice went the spoils, that the leaders were the people with the big personalities, the ones who stated their opinions without a note of uncertainty.   

More often than not, though, the truth is actually the opposite.  “Humble leaders,” writes Forbes Magazine columnist Jeff Hyman in his article “Why Humble Leaders Makes the Best Leaders, “understand that they are not the smartest person in every room. Nor do they need to be. They encourage people to speak up, respect differences of opinion and champion the best ideas, regardless of whether they originate from a top executive or a production-line employee.”

To say that we live in the golden age of narcissism may be an overstatement, but only slightly.  For some very good reasons, we parents, unlike our own parents, have made our kids the center of attention since the day they were born.  They are the most photographed and filmed generation of kids in history, and they have absorbed messages pressuring them to “build their personal brands.”  

Occasionally, I’ve been told, “We love Falmouth Academy; we think you’re the best-kept secret on Cape Cod.” Such comments inspire me to look for new and creative ways to spread the good news, boasting be damned.  But at the same time, I remind myself to remain authentically who we are, and that includes being humble. 

In the words of Confucius, “Worry not that no one knows you; seek to be worth knowing.”